Short fiction by Sarala Estruch
‘You should go out,’ Nathan says.
From his seat beside the bed, he has spotted me taking surreptitious glances out of the window. The baby is asleep in his arms, eyelids pressed tight against the day.
I bring myself slowly, carefully up to sitting. ‘Do you think I should? I mean, would it be OK?’
I haven’t been outside in seven days, and until the sun fell on my pillow – just now – I didn’t think of it. I’ve been too busy breastfeeding burping nappy-changing breastfeeding again… But now that I’ve been ordered to rest, what else is there to do?
‘Absolutely. Go for a walk. We’ll be fine.’ He smiles at me, the skin around his eyes pleating. Neither of us has had much sleep since the baby’s arrival.
I place my feet on the carpeted floor. There is a faded stain centimetres from my toes. After the birth, Nathan scrubbed as hard as he could but everyone knows there’s nothing more stubborn than blood.
‘I won’t be long,’ I say, needlessly. I haven’t been apart from Joshua for more than ten minutes, the time it takes to have a quick, careful wash at the sink. My hair has started to give off a slight, oily smell.
‘Take as long as you need. You heard Christine, you need a break.’
Christine. The midwife who came earlier this morning, with her clean face and professional concern.
‘If he wakes up, I’ll give him some milk.’
The milk is Nestlé formula even though Nathan knows I’ve boycotted the company for years, but then it’s only natural that he would have forgotten in all the panic. The midwife sent him to the shops the minute she’d finished weighing Joshua. As though I haven’t been breastfeeding him on-demand like a human milk machine.
‘It’s not your fault,’ she said when Nathan had gone, while Joshua was at my breast, guzzling as usual.
Now, I take one last look at the baby in his father’s arms and think I’ve never seen him so peaceful.
Outside, the morning is warmer and brighter than I’d expected. I raise my hands to shield my eyes as I look out at the Victorian terraced houses glowing in the sunlight. When I was growing up, this street was like most of South Tottenham: a medley of West Indians and Turks and a spattering of Western Europeans, like my mother and stepfather. In recent years, the Hasidic Jewish community has spilled over from Stamford Hill. I watch two women talking and laughing as they push their Maclaren buggies past my front gate, each surrounded by a tribe of children. Their number emphasises my aloneness. I wait for them to pass.
On the street, I pause to peel off my jumper. I do this with care so as not to brush against my nipples.
‘It’s supposed to hurt a bit,’ Nathan said when I told him how it killed every time our son latched on for a feed, his lips clamping down so hard that if I didn’t know better I’d think he was hiding a full set of fangs. ‘You’ve just got a low pain threshold.’
Nathan said this the day after I’d gone through a prolonged labour giving birth to our ten-pounder son.
A car zooms past, intent on its destination and I envy its urgency. Where am I going? My steps are slow and tentative, every one an exploration. My knees spring beneath my new, lighter weight but my legs feel weak, unused to walking, and each pace brings raw pain from the still unhealed tear.
Childbirth was nothing like I was expecting. The waves of pain radiating from inside me and growing in intensity so that soon I was screaming like an animal. For hours, I panted and cried out until – finally – a palm-sized mirror was pressed into my hand by the midwife. In that square of silver I saw something brown and shiny — the crown of a human head!
‘Push, push,’ the midwife urged.
And so I did – again and again – until all at once there came a searing tearing pain and I felt it, tumbling out of me: this new life, my son.
I lay back on the blood-soaked blankets, and held the baby. It was over at last, and here he was: my prize. In that moment, I was Superwoman, bathing in oxytocin-fuelled splendour.
But when the midwife started zipping up her bags, invincibility was superseded by panic. I knew nothing about parenting. I felt awkward holding my own baby. He was so fragile, but heavy too. And floppy! In my twenty-eight years of life, I’d never cared for a young child for more than a few minutes. I couldn’t believe I was going to be left to figure it out on my own.
The canal is even more beautiful than I remember it, sunlight leaping off the blue-green water with a clean, white light that dazzles my eyes. The mud along the bank has been baked a golden brown and the narrowboats look colourful as boiled sweets. A group of Jewish children are emptying bags of bread into the water. Around them is a tumult of birds: black geese and mallards in the river; pigeons on the ground; and seagulls in the air, a cacophony of squawks and flapping wings. As I pass, the children are laughing and clapping as the birds squabble and eat.
Up ahead is a family of swans, their feathers moon-white. I remember reading somewhere that swans remain faithful till death does them part and I think of Nathan back at the house, the way he has kept things going while my own energies and attentions have been swallowed up by the baby. I pull my mobile out of my trouser pocket, but the screen is blank. Since Christine arrived this morning, everything has changed. Impossible to imagine going back to how it was before. Breastfeeding — with me being the sole source of life. Nathan and Nestlé are doing a far better job.
Further along the path, a young woman is walking towards me. She is wearing a blue summer dress and gold-strapped sandals. The heels are precariously high but she walks with a swing in her hips, chestnut hair sashaying around her shoulders, buoyed by the belief that the world is hers for the taking. Up until last week, that could have been me. Now, standing alone is an immense effort. Will I ever walk like that again?
As the girl saunters past, my mobile starts to ring. I press the green button without looking at the screen.
‘Nathan,’ I say. My pulse is in my ears. Something’s happened to Joshua, I’m sure of it.
There is a pause followed by a gentle laugh. ‘Hello, Amrita.’
‘Oh Mum, it’s you.’ I take a deep breath. I spot a bench a few paces ahead and hobble towards it.
‘Pourquoi? Is Nathan not with you?’ she asks.
‘No, I’m out.’ I ease my body onto the firm wooden bench.
‘Ah,’ she says and something in her voice has shifted. I can hear her mind ticking. Why isn’t Nathan with you? You’ve just given birth.
‘How does my grandson like being outside?’ she asks, her voice regaining its initial cheer. ‘I hope you put on the hat I bought him, the one with the yellow ducks. There is a little wind today.’
‘I didn’t bring him.’
‘Ah bon? What are you thinking, Amrita?’
I can feel her judgement crossing boroughs and telephone lines. My mother gave up work, friends, hobbies, the lot after I was born. She and my father had separated so she raised me on her own, and she loves to remind me what a demanding child I was — breastfed and sleeping in her bed till I was three years old.
‘The midwife’s put him on formula,’ I say. ‘Apparently I don’t have enough milk.’
‘What? She of all people should know your body makes all the milk the baby needs. It’s supply and demand.’
‘But he’s not feeding properly, Mum. Maybe formula is our only option.’
‘There’s no going back, you know. You’ll dry up.’ Her voice has taken on the jaggedness of a broken stone. I can almost see her furrowed eyebrows, the thin lips drawn tight in her masculine jaw.
A pressure rises in my throat and chest, a prickling in my eyes. I know they all want what’s best for me and the baby (my Mum, Nathan, and Christine) but who am I meant to believe?
On the other end of the line, my mother takes a deep breath.
‘Ecoute. Do you want me to come over?’ Her voice has softened.
‘No, no, I’m fine,’ I say.
I think of her last visit, the day after Joshua’s birth. She was enamoured with him: his tiny fists and tight little mouth, and the way he looks like a miniature, paler version of his father. She kept saying that, with an edge to her voice, like she was disappointed. But it was me who felt the most jilted. I had a baby who looked nothing like me.
‘Look Mum, I’ve got to go. Nathan might be trying to get through.’
‘Bon, d’accord. But get home quickly. Joshua needs to be with his maman.’
Anger flares up in my gut. ‘God, Mum. Why don’t you just say it? I’m a terrible mother. Just say it!’
‘Non, non, mon ange. Je n’ai pas dit ça…’
I press the button and cut her off. Sometimes it’s like she doesn’t know me at all.
I pull myself onto my legs, walk towards the canal and stop a breath away from the edge. Sunlight is skimming over the water, making it shimmer white and green but the water itself is moving slowly and something about that languid, liquid motion makes the tiredness well up in me. I close my eyes and think how easy it would be to lay there in the water, wet hands infiltrating my every pore, my every thought.
‘Lady. Hey. Hey, lady!’
I turn my head and see the girl in the blue dress. She walks right up to me and stops so close I can smell the mint on her breath.
‘Have you got the time?’ Her voice is hoarse and heavy with an East London accent.
As I look down at my phone, the girl grabs it and starts to run. I stare at my empty hand, back up at the girl. Long legs flashing, blue dress swishing at her thighs. I start to run but my legs are heavy and my swollen breasts swing painfully against my chest. I want to scream but my throat’s shut tight. I slacken my pace, keep my eyes fixed on the moving legs, the fluttering dress. And then her legs bend suddenly, awkwardly, and the girl and the dress are on the ground.
She tries to get up, places her weight on her left foot then her right and drops back down. ‘Shit.’
I am beside her, my shadow falling over her crumpled form.
‘Can I – can I have my phone back?’ I am out of breath and leaning forward, a hand pressed against my aching pelvis.
She looks up at me and squints. ‘Fuck off,’ she says and spits centimetres from my feet.
I look away, try to push back the tears.
‘Jesus,’ the girl says. ‘OK, OK, you can have it. Here.’
She holds out the phone and I take it and wipe at my eyes, but the tears flow through my fingers. I think of Joshua and Nathan and my mother, and the sobs just keep coming.
‘Look, I gave it back. Stop crying now. Please.’ The girl is prodding her right ankle and grimacing.
I have to stop this. I have to control myself.
I kneel beside her on the gravel. My pelvis screams, but the girl clearly needs help. ‘Can I have a look?’
She doesn’t reply but she doesn’t stop me either, so I lift her foot into my hands. It is a beautiful foot. Pale as fine china, toenails painted a delicate baby blue, the colour of the clothes we picked out for Joshua when he was still a foetus in my womb. Pregnancy was a special time for Nathan and I — all that excitement and anticipation; the adorable, if obscure, images on the ultrasound screen. It brought us closer. But since the birth, we’ve hardly talked, scarcely touched.
I ease the gold-strapped sandal off and she winces. This close, I can see that she is younger than I initially thought, but her eyes look like they’ve seen things they shouldn’t.
The ankle has already begun to swell. I apply very slight pressure to her heel, her arch. Then I press down gently on the top of her foot and she screams. The pain, as it flashes over her face, makes her look almost ugly.
‘What the fuck did you do that for?’ Blue eyes glaring. She looks like she’s going to hit me and I shift back an inch.
‘We need to get this seen to. It might be fractured,’ I say, keeping my voice even.
‘What are you, a doctor or something?’
‘Something like that.’ I don’t tell her that I’m an English teacher but I’ve broken my ankle in the past and know what it’s like. ‘Look, there’s a doctor’s surgery two roads away. Do you think you can walk there on your good foot if I support you?’
She stares at me, assessing me, then nods because she has no other choice. I pull her arm around my shoulder, and get a whiff of Tommy Girl and cigarettes.
‘Lean on me,’ I say.
We walk a few paces, awkwardly, like a couple in a three-legged race.
‘I’m Rita, by the way.’
‘Jamie,’ she says between clenched teeth.
We turn onto my road and begin to walk by the estates, the sprawl of six-floor buildings that were built only a decade ago but already look dilapidated, the walls a smudgy grey.
‘Leave me here,’ she says.
‘I live here.’ She nods at the grey buildings.
‘But what about the doctor’s?’
‘No way I’m walking that far. No fucking way.’ She lifts her arm from around my shoulder but stumbles the moment she applies pressure to her right foot. ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck.’
‘Do you want me to take you to your door?’
She looks at me, eyes furious. Then she lowers her head and nods, slowly. She lets me take her arm and place it back over my shoulders.
We hobble over to one of the grey buildings and, as we get closer, I notice that the walls are irregular with patches of white where they have been protected from the petrol and dirt by the branches of a large birch tree. She stops in front of a blue door with the number eleven scribbled on in black marker, and begins to feel her dress for a key.
The door opens onto a room that looks bigger than it is because it’s half-empty. The only pieces of furniture are an old brown sofa with a small plastic table beside it and a wide-screen TV, the Jeremy Kyle show blazing on the screen. Jamie hops towards the sofa and eases herself on, wincing. She keeps the door open but doesn’t invite me in.
‘Are your parents at work?’
She turns and gives me a suspicious look, her blue eyes squinted. ‘Look, you’re not gonna call the cops on me are ya?’
‘The cops?’ Then I remember the incident with the phone. ‘No, no. I’m not going to call the police. But I am going to call you a taxi.’
‘To get you to A and E. Someone needs to take a look at that ankle.’
She looks uncertain. ‘Can’t we wait for my sister to get back?’
‘What time will that be?’
‘I dunno. Late, maybe.’
I shake my head. ‘I’d rather call the taxi now. It could be hours before you’re seen. You can call your sister. She can meet you there.’
‘OK.’ She looks embarrassed.
‘You can come in, if you want,’ she says when I hang up. She is watching me closely, noting the way I’ve been leaning on the doorframe, trying to lessen the pain. ‘D’you wanna cuppa tea or sumfin?’
‘Could I have a glass of water?’
She nods at an opening in the wall and I walk into a tiny kitchen with pale green cabinets and an old electric stove. The room smells musty and sour, the air heavy with damp. I’m not surprised to find there’s no mineral water in the fridge — nothing, in fact, besides a family-size bottle of Fanta and a half-eaten can of tuna. I find two glasses on the draining board and fill them at the tap.
Jamie looks surprised when she sees me with two glasses. She takes one when I offer, but her cheeks flare up and her eyes skim the floor. ‘Fanks.’
She moves over to make room for me and takes a sharp intake of breath.
‘Your ankle, again?’
She looks at me, her pupils wide with pain. ‘There’s painkillers on that table.’
I reach over to the side table and pick up a small white cardboard box. It’s empty as is the one beside it, but the third box I pick up is half-full. She snatches it from my hand but not before I read the label. She pops two tablets, swallows them dry, and turns her head back to the TV. I want to ask why she has boxes of Co-codamol in her living room, but then I think about the last seven days. Maybe I should ask for some. Maybe it would help.
As if she’s read my mind, she turns and offers me the box. I shake my head. Drugs go straight to the breast milk. She raises an eyebrow then shrugs and turns back to the screen.
‘What happened back there?’ she says. ‘You were standing well close to the edge.’
I feel my cheeks grow hot.
‘I’m a new mother,’ I say. ‘My son is seven days old.’
‘No shit.’ She whistles, low and long. ‘Why aren’t you at home, then?’
It’s a good question.
‘My partner’s looking after him. He’s giving him a bottle.’ My voice glitches on the last word and Jamie looks at me.
‘That’s a good thing, innit? Him helping you out like that?’
‘Yes,’ I say, and feel a sudden rush of love for Nathan as I realise she’s right. He’s just doing his best. He’s as out of his depth in this parenting business as I am.
‘Oh no. Don’t start up again. Please.’
‘Sorry,’ I say, wiping my eyes. ‘I’m a wreck.’
‘You can say that again. You know what I thought when I saw you standing there like that?’ She looks at me, a mischievous light in her eyes. ‘I thought, if that crazy woman’s gonna jump, I’d better take her phone. Save the waste.’
‘Ha!’ I say, and I laugh, a real, deep belly laugh.
She joins in, tilting her head back, letting her teeth show.
Eventually, she shifts closer and puts her arm around my shoulders. Her body is warm and soft. I smell the Tommy Girl again and something else as her hair falls against my cheek — apples and vanilla.
It feels strange to be held. I can’t remember the last time Nathan held me. I was so large and uncomfortable in the final weeks of pregnancy, I couldn’t bear to be touched. But now, suddenly, I’m missing him. His firm, warm body. His cocoa butter smell.
But being hugged by Jamie is also like being hugged by my younger self. My nostrils might be filled with Tommy Girl but what I’m smelling is Truth by Calvin Klein, the perfume I wore at her age.
Jamie takes her arm away, smiles at me shyly, then shifts over on the sofa and turns back to the screen. My heart feels lighter as I wipe my eyes and pull out my phone. Still no messages. The digital clock says I’ve been out for an hour and a half, which explains why my breasts are tingling as though threaded with electricity.
Suddenly the phone is ringing. It’s Nathan.
‘Hey,’ I say. My heart is pummelling my chest as if in punishment. Something’s happened. I shouldn’t have left the house. ‘How’s Joshua?’
‘Sleeping like a baby.’ He gives a low chuckle. I can hear the father’s pride in his voice.
My heart starts to slow. ‘Wow. That’s great.’ And though I know it really is, somehow jealousy crawls into my voice. I try to camouflage it. ‘How are you?’
‘I wish I was sleeping like a baby!’
I giggle and it feels good. We haven’t laughed together in days. ‘Yeah, me too. I’m a walking zombie out here.’
‘Are you still in the park? You’ve been gone a while.’
‘No. I’m –’ I stop, not knowing how to explain. ‘I’ll be back soon.’
‘OK. I love you.’
‘I love you too.’
As I hang up, I realise this is the most normal conversation we’ve had in over a week.
When the taxi comes, I hand the driver fifteen pounds and tell him, ‘Homerton A and E.’
Jamie looks at me. ‘Aren’t you coming?’
My breasts are so hard they hurt. I shake my head. ‘I can’t.’
She looks disappointed, her lips full, eyes low. Then she looks up. ‘Does he look like you? Your son?’
I think of little Joshua — his red angry mouth and sad dark eyes. I never knew a baby could look sad but Joshua does, most of the time, and his eyes show it the most, even more than his almost perpetual cries. But there’s also his fluffy halo of hair, the button nose and groove above his lip. And when he’s asleep, he looks so serene, as if birthing him into this world wasn’t such a bad thing after all.
‘No, he doesn’t,’ I say. ‘He looks like his father.’
‘Damn, that must be disappointing.’
I look at her, surprised.
‘Well, I mean, after you’ve gone and given birth and everything, you’d kind of hope he’d look like you,’ she says. ‘A reward for all that hard work.’
I want to hug her. I thought I was mad for thinking those thoughts, for feeling that way.
‘I guess just having him is reward enough,’ I say, smiling.
‘Yeah, you’re probably right.’ She looks down at her fingernails, then brings them to her mouth and begins to chew.
The driver turns in his seat, eyelids swollen, stubble on his cheeks. He looks like he’s at the end of a long shift. ‘Look, d’you want to go to Homerton or not?’
I step away from the car and the driver turns around, twists the key in the ignition.
‘I’ll drop in on you tomorrow to see how you’re doing,’ I say, raising my voice over the rattle of the engine. ‘I’ll bring Joshua. We live just up the road.’
‘No shit! You live on this road? That means we’re neighbours.’ She’s smiling now and I notice the little dents in her cheeks. She looks like the kind of child you would want to go on spoiling into adulthood.
I nod. ‘I’ll bring you my old phone. That way I can keep mine.’
Jamie looks at me and when she sees the grin on my face, she grins back.
The driver revs the engine. Suddenly Jamie lurches forward and flings her arms around me. She presses her head against my shoulder and I smell that soft, fruity smell again.
She waves as the car pulls away and I watch it speed up the road, my breasts heavy as udders. I can feel the milk’s sticky sweetness as it trails down my stomach.