The Weekend Read
By Becky Tipper
20th Jul 2018
Marie latches the gate and they step out together from her back garden into the wide field that spreads down to the river.
She’d almost stopped using this back way – it’s just not something she thinks to do when she’s on her own. Since Jake arrived, though, they often come out here. Sometimes they stroll along the river path. Sometimes they go over to the park to play or feed the ducks.
He slips his hand into hers as they walk, and she strums his fingers with her thumb. When he came in September, she arranged her shifts at the shop so she could have him over for three afternoons a week, and this is just what they do now – a part of her routine. Even so, it surprises her sometimes to feel his hand in hers, so smooth and small and strange.
His hands are still plump as a baby’s. Once, studying her closely, he ran his finger over her knuckles and asked with wonder, ‘What are those, Nana? Those pointy things? I don’t have them.’ (‘Dose,’ he pronounces it, instead of ‘those.’ ‘Dem’ for ‘them.’) It took her a moment, but then she realized it was true – he didn’t. You forget, don’t you? When his hand lies flat, instead of knuckles, he just has a little row of dimples. Like drops of water denting the surface of a pool.
She’s delighted that he reaches for her like this; trusts his hand in hers. Because she did worry, before he got here, that he’d be shy around her. With Alastair and April living over in California when he was born, she only met Jake once before they all moved here. And he was just a tiny baby then, so he’d have no memory of it.
As he got older, they’d talked on Skype most weekends, which Jake always seemed to love – chattering away and holding up all his toys to show her, so that she was familiar with every newly acquired car and had learned the names of all his stuffed dogs. All the same, she was never sure whether he’d be able to put it all together when they actually met. And there was that one time, not long before they came over, when he proclaimed to the computer, ‘Nana, you’re not real, you’re just pretend!’ It was so jarring, after all their sweet exchanges, to realize she was no more real to him than something on TV.
Then again, she thinks, what is real at that age? In many ways, she’s bowled over by how much he knows. He’ll tell her all about knights and castles and trebuchets (she had to ask him what they were), and sometimes he’ll come out with words – like delicate or ancient or tragic – that seem far beyond his years. But then, occasionally, he’ll say something so odd that it takes her a while to understand. Like the other day: ‘There were no children in knight times.’
And she said, ‘Of course there were. There have always been children – that’s how there’s always new people.’
But he was resolute – set his little mouth tight and turned his face away. ‘No, Nana, there weren’t children then.’
There was no arguing with him. It left her reeling to think about how he must see the past, as if it were totally unconnected to anything else. Just so many separate universes of things that used to be.
There are more people out than she’d expect for a weekday — bikes zipping along the cycle path and people puttering over the bridge. They stop to watch a chocolate Labrador lumbering after a tennis ball. She recognizes that yappy white terrier who lives with the couple on the corner, barking at all the passing cyclists.
The tour boats are out too, now that it’s spring. Bits of phrases drift ashore as the tour guide points out things of interest — how high the Ouse reached in past floods, how the Millennium Bridge wasn’t actually ready in time for the millennium. The passengers turn their heads to look at the leaning silver arch of it and the boat glides on along the water towards the Archbishop’s palace.
They are nearly at the bridge when Jake gives a little shout and drops her hand. It startles her to feel the sudden emptiness and she calls out to him: ‘Where are you going?’
He’s running towards the river, eyes fixed on something just ahead, and she sees him throw himself down to the ground, peering under the hedges by the riverbank. Then she sees it too: a little furry thing lying under the tangled branches. A little animal.
‘Nana! It’s a rabbit!’
She catches up and he comes over, slides his hand back in hers and they stand looking. She can see now how frantically the creature is panting. She should have known that something wasn’t right – it was too still, too unafraid of them. Its brown fur is matted black with blood on one side.
‘Is it poorly?’
‘Yes,’ she says. ‘I think it’s been bitten.’
She sees his face flash with outrage and she recognizes that little blush of fear he gets when they talk about crocodiles or dragons – of things, imagined and real, that can harm and kill. ‘Who bit it?!’
‘A dog, I think.’
He narrows his eyes and swipes his arm through the air. ‘I will get that naughty dog with my sword!’
The air is turning chilly. It was so sunny this morning – felt like spring had really arrived, what with all the daffodils out on the city walls – but already the sky’s clouding over, swaddled in white.
‘Are you cold?’ she asks Jake.
He shakes his head, no. She pulls his hood up over his tangle of blonde curls anyway and rubs his hands in hers.
‘Nana, can we take it home?’
Marie squats down to look at the creature. It’s so small. Just a baby, probably.
Jake reaches out to pet its soft fur but hovers his hand just above – afraid to quite make contact. She realizes that he’s singing, very softly. She can just make out that he’s crooning, ‘Oh, I know, I know’ – the same words she murmurs to soothe his scrapes away.
‘Nana, can we?’ And there’s a little quaver in his voice.
Further along the riverbank, a golden retriever crashes through the brush and down into the water. It doesn’t see them, doesn’t see the rabbit. But there’s so many of them, she thinks. It would only take one curious dog to sniff it out and it would be done for. Perhaps if she could get it home, somewhere safe, it would stand a chance.
‘OK,’ she says.
Jake reaches as if he’s going to pull it out.
‘No!’ She catches his hands. ‘Let me. We have to be gentle.’
Marie hesitates a moment; she’s not sure how best to do this. If she just picks the rabbit up, it might scratch her. And then what if it thrashes about? It could hurt itself even more. It’s not far back to her house, but she’ll need something to carry it in. She peels off her cardigan and wraps it around the rabbit, winding it up tight like a baby.
She settles the bundle in the crook of her arm and squeezes it gently against her side.
‘Quickly now,’ she says.
She can feel its little heart beating through the fabric, the delicate lilt of its bones lifted by each breath, the needle-sharp points of its claws. She’s cold now, without her cardigan, and overhead, the clouds are turning thick and grey.
All the dog-walkers seem to have left, so it’s only her and Jake making their way over the grass. She imagines how they’d look to someone watching from the row of red-brick semis, the way she sometimes watches people out on the field from her own back bedroom window. The blue bundle clutched under her arm, her other hand reaching down to meet Jake’s. How she’s holding her body tense and taut so as not to drop their strange cargo. The wind stirring up their hair now. Both of them taking small, urgent steps.
At her house, although it’s only afternoon they need to put the lights on. They find a box for for the rabbit and she sends Jake to fetch an old towel out from under the sink, which he wads into a careful mattress. She lowers the rabbit in, still wrapped in her cardigan.
They give it a tiny dish of water, poured into the lid of an old jam jar. Jake fetches a carrot from the fridge and lays it next to the rabbit.
And then it sleeps, so they leave it at the back of the kitchen and sit watching cartoons in the living room. It seems to her that he forgets the rabbit, or perhaps he is just reassured it will be fine now.
Alastair and April are out tonight, so Jake is staying over. After tea, she starts to move him towards sleep, with its familiar lulling of warm baths and stories and soft-sung songs. She tucks him into the bed in Alastair’s old room. And, yes, she says to his murmured questions, she will watch the rabbit overnight and make sure it’s all right. And, yes, she says, he can see it in the morning.
She lies down next to him. She’ll stay until he’s sleeping.
It’s as he’s dozing off that he whispers, almost too quiet to hear, ‘Nana, maybe my momma will give it nunu tomorrow – to make it better.’
She remembers the first time he talked about nunu – his word for breastfeeding – when they’d been here a week or so. She knew that April had done it for a long while, although Jake had been weaned by the time they arrived in England. Even so, he still talks about it now and then. And he has a familiarity with April’s chest that makes Marie feel vaguely uncomfortable.
April is outspoken about most things, in that way that Americans are. She told Marie that hunter-gatherers breastfeed until their children are four or five, or even older. Marie didn’t understand the relevance. But we don’t live in a tribe, she wanted to say. It seemed unnecessary to let a child become so attached. To be so conscious of it that he gave it a name.
With Alastair, she fed him herself at first and then switched to bottles. Back then, three months seemed like quite long enough. No one would have dreamed of doing it for years on end. She remembers her own mother was shocked that Marie bothered with it at all – wasn’t it something only doctors’ wives and poor people did? It had been a struggle in the beginning, so she was relieved, really, to be done with it. Although she can still remember the sweetness of it, too – his tiny mouth nuzzling at her. How strange it felt to be known and needed like that.
Now, of course, they’re always saying that it’s best. Six months at the very least. When they first arrived, Alastair reeled off a list of benefits – reduced allergies and ear infections, higher IQ, lower risk of adult obesity. All of it in that tone that implied his mother was entirely out of touch. He even said at one point, ‘Maybe if you’d fed me longer, I wouldn’t have had asthma.’ Which was galling, obviously. Although she’s used to feeling like she’s in the wrong with Alastair.
She’s given up trying to talk to him about his work – about his PhD, or his lecturing. Whenever she tries to show an interest it always seems to irritate him, as though she’s saying the wrong things and asking stupid questions.
It’s probably fifteen years ago now, but somehow it sticks with her – one time when he was back home from uni and they went out in York. Those new coffee shops were springing up all over town then, and it seemed like a nice thing to do, to go out. Alastair was going up to the counter and she asked him to get her a latte, just a normal white coffee.
‘That’s not a normal coffee, Mum,’ he said. ‘And it’s not latt-ee, it’s lah-tay.’
‘Well a lah-tay, then. I thought it was a normal coffee.’ A man at the station café had told her, when she’d asked for just a normal one please, that it was a latte she wanted.
‘An Americano is what you want, with cold milk. It’s shots of espresso with water to make a black coffee. A latte is what you’d call a milky coffee.’
‘Oh well, that’s me told,’ she said. ‘I do quite like a milky coffee though. But you choose. I don’t know – you keep up with these things better than me.’
So Alastair brought her back a sloshing cup of dark, bitter coffee. It was far too strong, and there wasn’t much room for milk in it. She didn’t like to make a fuss by getting up to get more milk, so she ended up leaving most of it. And it hit her that somehow he was slipping away from her, fluent in this new world of expensive, undrinkable coffee. It left her feeling inexpressibly old. Already obsolete.
Alastair left for America not long after that. He met April over there and they were married within a few months, although it was years before they thought about having children. It’s a different thing for them, parenting. When Marie had Alastair, she was flung into it when she was only in her twenties – and on her own too. Maybe it’s because they’re older, she thinks, or maybe it’s just how it is nowadays, but everything seems so deliberate. Every food, every behaviour consciously approved or denied. April doesn’t even let Jake have sugar. Sometimes, Marie gets him chocolate buttons anyway and makes him promise not to tell. She remembers the first time, how she opened the packet, poured a few out into her hand and offered them to him, expecting him to pick some up. Instead, he just leaned over and ate them right out of her hand, his little mouth warm on her palm like a horse.
‘You daft thing!’ she said.
And then he was laughing hysterically – that baby laugh, gurgling and babbling like water. And she couldn’t stop laughing either.
She hadn’t been prepared for that before he came, hadn’t anticipated the sheer delight of him. That lovely giddiness that knocks her sideways.
Before Alastair started this job here at the university, she’d only had that one visit with Jake soon after he was born. Back then he was mostly in April’s arms and screamed whenever Marie tried to hold him. But now he is so fully alive and so fully himself. There is so much of him it constantly amazes her.
His voice, like his hands, is still nestled in that space between baby and child – high and peeping, his mouth clumsy around certain consonants. When he talks about things in the past, he sometimes adds a little accent at the end, so that it sounds as though he’s reading old poetry. I pickèd a flower, Nana! I learnèd a new animal! I choppèd up my banana!
She remembers when he first arrived, he was fascinated by what things were like other things. ‘Dimilar,’ he’d say. Sometimes it was obvious things – his little toy horse and carriage just like her china ornament; a Lego tree and the conifer in her garden. And sometimes, more surprising things – a nibbled biscuit and a crescent moon in a picture; a pine cone he carried home and put next to a pineapple she’d bought when it was reduced, declaring, ‘Nana, I have dimilarized it!’
‘You similarized it?!’
Her laughter making him hesitate and check himself – ‘Is that how you say it, dimilarize?’
‘Well, I think that’s a new word,’ she said. ‘But I know what you mean.’
Because really, there is no other word for it, is there? What he means is not quite the same as comparing, because that’s about seeing what’s different too. It’s more just the act of holding up the world to itself and showing what matches. A funny kind of matching, though. Showing you the world is more than you thought it was; revealing what things are the same after all.
There was talk at first that Alastair’s visiting fellowship in York might pan into something permanent. Marie was hoping, of course, that they’d find a way to stay. But April is not keen on England, and now a university in the States has offered both of them teaching jobs. So it looks like they’ll be back there again before September – all the way across the ocean and half-way across a continent.
It’s not a tragedy. She knows that.
He won’t be lost. She can visit them and they can visit her. In the scheme of things in this awful world, it can be borne. Look at what some people go through.
She can go over at Christmas time, and they’ll try to make it over in the summers, Alastair says. But what is that? Once or twice a year? You could, if you wanted, count up all the visits there might ever be – ten? Twenty? Thirty at most? Seeing it like that, all planned out and dotted through the years, wears you down a little, she thinks. So that you can feel the age settling in you.
She can’t imagine wanting to live over there, though she tries not to say so. Alastair and April tell her it’s not all like what you see on TV. There’s a better quality of life, they say. More opportunities for them both. But – although of course she knows terrible things happen everywhere – she can’t help thinking how they seem to happen so often over there. That one time, in a primary school of all places. All those little ones. It breaks your heart, she thinks, to hear about things like that. Empties you right out.
His body’s heavy with sleep now, leaned against hers, the heat pooling between them. Her arm over his chest rising with each of his breaths, his hair tickling her face.
She’s amazed at how much like Alastair he is. In the half-dark, it could almost be him. Sometimes she slips back, into an image from some sun-stained photo, and she’s a young mother again walking hand-in-hand with her own blonde creature, all limbs and questions and newfound words, and teeth so small and white.
Since Jake’s been here, it feels that it’s all rushed back to her. Remembering in her muscles how to hold and soothe. The mouthfuls and nosefuls of wispy hair when she leans in to kiss him. Remembering just how much you kiss them. How everything about him is new and clean and fresh (sometimes, stroking his feet and playing ‘This Little Piggy’, she wants to cry about how soft his soles are, still unworn and smooth). Remembering how little bodies do everything so entirely – how he is so deeply asleep, or so completely awake, and then sometimes, in that theatrical, weepy transition between the two. Nothing like adulthood, which it occurs to her is spent instead in some dull, drowsy state where you drag yourself awake all day with tea and coffee. And then you can’t get to sleep at night.
She’s never told anyone, but when they first arrived, she got her period again. The change had come late for her, and seemed to have taken years, but she’d been sure it was finally done. It was so strange – the splash of red on the morning sheets – that it took her minutes, half-awake, to realise that she hadn’t somehow cut herself in the night. Fifty-eight years old and having one last gasp at making babies! As if time, and her body, forgot themselves.
She feels lately as if she’s been holding herself tense and poised all these years since Alastair was little, but that now Jake is here, her body can relax again. It’s like sinking into a warm bath. Like coming home. It’s as if she’s been waiting for him all this time, but never knew it.
This is what she’ll miss when they go, she realizes – the feel of being with him. Something dormant in her that’s crackling alive and pushing up to the surface, just because he’s close by.
That’s something you can’t get from talking on the computer.
She leans over and settles a kiss on his cheek, thinking how even now he has the oily smell of a baby, his skin smooth as butter. Before she pulls the door closed, she stands and listens to him breathing – rhythmic puffs that sound so tiny, up from his little lungs, out of his little nostrils.
Downstairs, the TV flashes, muted, with news of other places. People on the move and crammed into boats, straggling their lives with them, carrying their children. And then, sometimes, the children trying to make it all on their own. Every day now – so many of them you can’t quite conceive of it. Although it’s always been the way, she thinks. Other faces, other waves of feet, other little ones with no one to look after them. And then sometimes the people not moving anywhere at all, just stuck somewhere awful. She can still see those women with their swollen-bellied babies from years ago (when Alastair was not much more than a baby himself), just sat out in the sun, the flies on their faces.
You can’t look, can you? Not really. They try to show you the faces – those imploring eyes to make you send money. But to look – really look – would break you. Would break anyone.
She could do without the news if she’s honest. She usually leaves it on out of a sense of duty, but often she goes and fiddles in the kitchen until it’s over.
Just the other day, Carol two-doors-down was telling her how, for a month after her husband passed, she only watched News 24. She couldn’t stand to have the normal telly on after Patrick went, she said. Seeing all the usual programmes they used to watch together was a constant reminder of him, so it was easier to immerse herself in the news. Carol had learned all the details of every story that month; knew them all by heart. It was soothing in its way, she said.
Marie can appreciate that, the desire to escape from normal time. Like being on holiday, where you’re cut loose from all the things that hold you down in your routine. But not the horror of living all those people’s stories over and over.
She steps into the kitchen and looks into the box. The rabbit is still breathing, but its breath is fainter now. She can just make out the shallow rise and fall of its side. Its eyes are half-closed like crescents.
She takes out the untouched carrot and little dish of water. She pulls back some of her cardigan from its body, and strokes it lightly. She can feel its tiny heart flickering, and she hopes it’s not too frightened here, in this bright, strange-smelling place, when all it must have known before this is the soft scent of its mother, the earth, the grass. It makes a little squeak and starts kicking as if to run, eyes still closed. It’s all it knows to do when it’s afraid. All it’s ever known. And it strikes Marie that there is something so tragic about that, the uselessness of it.
She wonders if it is a shame that she doesn’t know if it’s a he or a she. Is it wrong to think of it as an it? Although, obviously, it can’t know or care what she knows. Even if it were to live, its maleness or femaleness would just be the swinging gravity of desire: to mate, to birth, to mother your babies.
She knows, though, as she strokes it that it won’t last.
Of course, it’s nothing, really, the coming and going of creatures. You see it on the nature programmes: the tiny babies just born, or struggling out of eggs, wiggling off to see the world, then some mouth – some other mother – swoops in and takes them. It seems cruel, but it’s only to feed her own children.
And it’s bearable, maybe, to watch because you can see how it all fits together. You see how some other little thing gets to live. And anyway, what can you do? It’s the way it is. Except sometimes, she thinks, you catch a glimpse of how it would be if you couldn’t turn and see what came next. If the dying of the light was your own. That one chance to be on the earth.
It’s been hours now and she knows that she has to do something. It’s not right to let it be in pain like this. But this is not something she’s ever had to do before.
Once, in town, she saw a man kill a pigeon. It was in King’s Square, where the pigeons are always pecking around after the sandwich and pasty crumbs. This one must have been hit by a car, though. It must have been dying. She was coming out of the baker’s and she saw the man pick it up off the ground and flick it with a strong, knowing move. He was wearing a tweed jacket and looked solid and practical as if he’d been a farmer once. Putting it out of its misery, of course. The only humane thing to do.
But, horrifically, in the breaking of its neck, the bird’s head came off entirely in his hand and its body tumbled into the road. And as the man stood there, stunned by what had just happened, a homeless man came round the corner. He dropped his dirty carrier bags on the ground and started railing at the other man, screaming, You bloody bastard! What’s it fucking done to you? He hadn’t seen the well-meaning intent in the man’s thick hands. Just that flick that disposed of it, and the horror after.
What the fuck are you doing? And all the people milling with their shopping and pausing to look. The man red-faced, dropping the bird’s head, turning away and moving on. And all the while, that lost man yelling there in the street, What the fuck’s it done to you? Crying out as if he was the voice of all grimy, grey, bedraggled things. As if he’d loved that particular bird. Pulling at his own clothes and wailing like those mothers you see on the TV mourning for their dead sons.
But it’s what you do, isn’t it? What point is there in letting it suffer? There’s a cleanness to the ending then. A tidying.
Already the rabbit feels as though it’s not quite a living thing anymore, but that it’s separated into the pieces of itself: fur, bones, lungs, legs, breath, blood. She remembers, suddenly, being with her mum at the end. You forget, until it comes round again, what it’s like exactly. How you wait, and for a while they need you – they seem to crave your hand and your voice. And then they become something else; they shake off their body. It’s comforting, almost, to know that ultimately, whatever it is that makes someone themselves isn’t really there anymore.
She takes another towel from under the sink and folds it to the right size. She kneels on the floor next to the box, and as she lowers the towel down over it, she can see her hands are trembling.
It doesn’t take much – it’s so weak already. Just that firm pressure; being sure to hold it down for long enough. She wants so much to stop, and her stomach is lurching as if she might be sick. ‘I’m sorry,’ she whispers. She feels the buck of its body resisting. And then, at the very end, the exhale of it, like a door slamming in her face.
After, she wraps the whole box in a bin bag, ties it up and sets it outside with the rubbish. Tomorrow she’ll put it out.
Perhaps she’ll tell Jake, she thinks, if he asks. Or she might just tell him it got better and she let it go back into the field. Perhaps he won’t even remember.
She walks back into the living room where the TV is still flickering its stream of images silently into the dark. The news is over – something else now.
First published in Prole (2016)