With a Small Bomb in Her Chest


 

Short Fiction by Anne Goodwin

 

One moonless night, when her daughter was but a few months old, Eve clawed back her silken baby skin and planted a bomb in her chest. It wasn’t as difficult as you’d imagine; a baby’s body is more malleable than an adult’s. Getting under her daughter’s skin was rather like peeling an orange. Or picking at the flap of a sealed envelope to slip an extra something inside.

It was only a small bomb, the size and shape of a button battery, albeit large in relation to her daughter. It was bigger, for example, than her daughter’s dainty fingernails, bigger than the snub of her nose. But, like a school uniform, the child would grow into it, grow until the bomb was eclipsed by the face of her wristwatch or an ornament she might hang from her ear.

Eve wasn’t thinking so far ahead when she buried the bomb in her baby daughter. Admittedly, the act was premeditated: she’d had to order the device in advance and research how to install it. But even when the package arrived in the post, and – setting aside, in her excitement, the daily challenge of dressing, showering and brushing her teeth in sole custody of a miniature human being – Eve ripped through the bubble wrap, she didn’t expect to implant it. The instrument was insurance against her daughter’s demands becoming so unbearable they might induce an explosion within Eve herself.

It would be wrong to assume that this was an unwanted baby. Quite the reverse, with three rounds of IVF and all the attendant stress and sacrifice. Watching her husband’s career soar as hers diminished. But Eve wasn’t complaining. She willingly stepped off the ladder to assume the mantle of motherhood.

They’d named her Felicity: proof, if proof were needed, that they prized their daughter’s happiness above all else. From the very first kick, Eve had imagined she was incubating a superhero, a better and braver version of herself. But the child she got was a wimp and a whinger, a blubbing red-faced grouch whose sole purpose seemed to be to undermine her, clinging one minute and pushing her away the next. If she hadn’t delivered her from her own body, Eve could convince herself the infant was a changeling. Some lesser woman’s daughter. Sometimes Eve believed this despite the evidence of her parentage in the shape of her nose and the hue of her eyes, although she had the good sense not to mention her suspicions to Adam.

Her husband was away the night she sliced into their daughter’s chest to deposit the bomb. Away collecting stories of men, and sometimes women and children, who carried their bombs as vests strapped around their chests to detonate in crowded places, murdering many and mutilating the bodies and minds of those who survived. Away was where Eve would have been had she not been trapped by her own tiny terrorist.

How the child howled! The siren battered Eve’s skull and made her eyes stream. She’d tried feeding her, rocking her, and changing her nappy, but her screams continued unabated. She’d tried singing to her and shouting back at her, but it made no difference. With aching arms, she carried her from room to room, put her in the car and drove her through the night-time streets, to no effect. She offered her a bottle, a dummy, the trunk of a knitted elephant, but the child spat them out. She laid her in her cot and closed the door on her, but the cacophony drummed her from sleep.

Eve was beyond exhausted. On the point of shaking her baby or smothering her, she remembered the bomb with the potential to save them both.

The baby fought a little, waved her arms and kicked her legs as she sometimes did when Eve wrestled with her nappy. But as soon as blood bubbled through the incision, the wailing dissolved to a whimper. As if babies came pre-programmed for the introduction of small bombs, aware that sometimes survival demands one’s own defeat.

The gash healed quickly, leaving only the palest of scars. For a few days it had smouldered, a scorched scarlet, and the child had grizzled with a fever but was nevertheless quieter than she’d ever been, as if she’d transferred all her anger into the wound. Afterwards, she was placid, and able to smile to order, finally living up to her name. Although not yet a year old, Felicity seemed to appreciate the risks of agitation. To understand that, if she didn’t behave herself, she could trigger the bomb.

 

Eve hadn’t intended to keep the bomb secret from Adam. Yet when he came home, he was so full of himself and his stories of suicide bombers and snipers and, initially at least, so uninterested in what she and Felicity had done in his absence that, when he finally condescended to ask, she reeled off the banalities he seemed to expect. She detected within herself a thrill of satisfaction on seeing her husband stifle a yawn when she described, in painstaking detail, how Felicity had acquired a taste for pureed apricot rice.

Eve was obliged to shoulder the bulk of childcare, even when her husband was home. Anything to prevent him noticing the scratch on Felicity’s chest. She told him the pair of them had established a modus operandi and it would unsettle Felicity if he were to instigate a new system for changes and feeds. Accustomed to a more egalitarian relationship, Eve was surprised to find she enjoyed pushing him to the periphery, surreptitiously punishing him for pursuing his career.

Eve wasn’t alone in using their daughter as ammunition. With a grand gesture of magnanimity, Adam urged Eve to put her feet up while he took their freshly-spruced daughter out for a walk. Parking the pram beside a bench in view of the mallards skimming across the reservoir, he composed passionate texts to the photographer who’d seen him off at the airport.

In the end, it was an amicable separation. Now that her daughter was so delightful, Eve hadn’t time for anyone else. And if Felicity missed her father, she didn’t show it. At least not after Eve cupped her chin with both hands to secure her attention and mouthed the word bomb.

 

Conscious that babies comprehend much more than they can communicate, Eve took care to provide a commentary on any activity involving the child. She was the kind of mother one sees in the supermarket delivering a monologue on the need for free range eggs. And so it was with the bomb. Eve would have been negligent to leave her actions unexplained when she first broke the skin of her daughter’s upper body. Naturally, she had no desire for Felicity to blow herself up. But to serve as a deterrent the baby had to understand what the bomb could do.

Of course, Felicity couldn’t be expected to adapt immediately, especially as she’d been somewhat fractious at the time of the bomb’s insertion. But Adam’s departure provided the optimal conditions for the constant repetition that ensures a lesson sticks. At bath time, Eve casually named the bomb along with the more obvious parts of her daughter’s anatomy, enunciating clearly as she wiped them with a turtle-shaped sponge. It wasn’t long before Felicity could pronounce the word herself. Certainly it entered her vocabulary long before Daddy did.

Unfortunately, Eve had taught her daughter only half the lesson. The other half, that the bomb’s existence was confidential to the two of them, didn’t occur to her until Felicity let it slip to Adam’s parents on a rare visit to their home.

“Where’s your mouth? Where is your nose?” chimed the child’s grandmother. Proudly, Felicity pointed to each part. But her Gan Gan seemed to have overlooked the most important bit of her body. Keen to show off her knowledge, Felicity shouted Bomb as she tapped her chest.

Too late, Eve recalled an overly maternal friend, collecting her two-year-old from nursery, being greeted by an ecstatic, and extremely voluble, cry of “Booby!” Her friend’s embarrassment was part of the reason she’d promoted Felicity from breast to bottle at around six weeks.

Like her red-faced friend, Eve was compelled to camouflage the breach of security with a joke at her daughter’s expense. “No, darling,” she said, “that’s your chest! It’ll be a few years before you have a bosom.” That Felicity was withdrawn and irritable afterwards furnished the perfect excuse for declining future invitations from the in-laws.

Neither mother nor child mentioned the bomb again. The grimace flashing across Felicity’s face when she washed her chest at bath time, as well as her generally exemplary behaviour, reassured Eve she’d internalised the message. Now that she could assert some self-control, it was immaterial whether Felicity remembered the bomb itself. When guilt wormed its way into Eve’s dreams, she always managed to shrug it off the following morning. Felicity would understand, would empathise and forgive her, when she became a mother herself.

As time went on, and her guilt contracted, so did Eve’s belief that her memory of lodging the bomb was real. In those early months of mothering, days and nights had merged into a befuddling fugue. A crisis of confidence and insufficient sleep might well have made her hallucinate the whole episode. Was she capable of performing surgery? Was it possible to manufacture a bomb so small? When she searched the internet for the site from which she thought she’d obtained it, her server returned a 404 error: Page not found.

 

Resigning from her job investigating far-flung conflicts, Eve devoted herself to full-time mothering. She had few friends, and no close ones, unless, as she privately did, she could count her daughter as such. Their lives revolved around the sharing of simple pleasures: cooking a meal; watching soaps; strolling arm in arm through the park. When other mothers complained about their children’s antics – their waywardness, their refusal to conform – a smug smile stretched to her cheeks, but she said nothing. Everyone could see Felicity was a mild-mannered girl.

As the years passed, and the scar fused with the surrounding skin, the bomb faded from Eve’s mind. This was inevitable when the harassed woman who’d procured it, along with the bawling baby who’d provoked her, were mere phantoms from another, more troublesome, world. The doting mother Eve became could not possibly have injured her baby, even for her own benefit. The obedient daughter Felicity had grown into could not have been so contrary as to drive her to such extremes.

Sadly, Felicity had a character defect, of a kind that particularly peeved her mother. Although, true to her name, she smiled readily, at times that smile seemed strained. Eve was loath to admit it, but her daughter was unusually timid, often the butt of bullies even though Adam had been induced to pay for a school where the girls wore straw boaters and ought to have been more refined. She flinched at large dogs, and small ones if they were noisy, and begged for a night-light in her room. On holiday, she paddled in the shallows with the little ones, and vomited at the mere suggestion of a fairground ride. Eve often had to resort to teasing to get the girl to do anything beyond sitting quietly with a puzzle book. She couldn’t understand it; she had been full of adventure as a child.

As Felicity’s final year of school approached, Eve badgered her about university. Felicity claimed she didn’t want to go or, if she did, she’d live at home and commute to one nearby. Eve was having none of it. Years before, she’d dreamt of them launching a business together once Felicity reached eighteen. But she’d given that up when she recognised that, if her daughter didn’t go away to university, she’d never leave. Much as she valued having a dutiful and doting daughter, she didn’t fancy being the mother of a boring old maid. And, on the brink of adulthood, Felicity was boring. While she had no intention of cutting her adrift, Eve began to think it would be better for both of them if Felicity moved on.

 

Never having spent a night apart from her mother, Felicity feared the separation would break both their hearts. She felt it physically, as if there were a scalpel embedded in her breast ready to sever her aorta the moment they stopped breathing the same air. Her mother’s complacency disturbed her, her dizzy euphoria as they shopped for a new laptop, crockery and towels. The woman who had protected her, never sending her on sleepovers or school trips, now seemed reckless. It was almost as if Eve was the daughter and Felicity the grown-up.

As her departure date loomed, her chest pains worsened, but her mother dismissed them as just nerves, intimating she was a hypochondriac, like her father. Yet, in complying with her mother’s wishes, Felicity felt stripped of a layer of skin. Night after night, she cowered in her room as students partied in the corridors. She longed for escape, but returning home wasn’t an option. She feared her mother’s disappointment more than her own loneliness and grief.

Although she crept furtively around the campus, her long hair shielding her face from scrutiny, her social isolation had its limits. She had to attend lectures. She had to eat. Somehow she was out and about enough to find herself a couple of friends, or they found her. Patience and Charity were equally shy and colourless, young women for whom a good night out meant an organ recital at the cathedral and in bed, alone with a cup of cocoa, by ten. In their company, Felicity felt less of a freak.

From the start, Felicity had been anxious about returning home for the holidays. At first, it was because she had no stories of high jinks with which to entertain her mother, and the worry that, once absorbed into the routines of home, she’d find it impossible to leave. But now she had friends, quiet unassuming girls who failed to notice her inadequacies, she didn’t want the academic year to end. Astounded by her own daring, she asked her friends if they’d like to take a holiday together after the exams.

Those two weeks hiking with Patience and Charity were the happiest Felicity had ever known. So long as they stuck to the well-worn paths and bypassed fields of cows, there was nothing to worry about. Saving their breath for the ascents, they didn’t need to make conversation beyond pointing out birds and butterflies, or identifying wild flowers. Sometimes, over half a pint of beer in the pub where they spent the night, one of them might even crack a joke.

At the end of the holiday, Felicity returned reluctantly to her childhood home. As soon as she shrugged off her backpack, Eve complained how much she’d missed her, how lonely she’d felt while her daughter was carousing with her friends. Felicity experienced her mother’s sorrow as a violent throbbing in her chest. In bed that night, she felt nothing but gratitude for these bodily sensations: a daughter doesn’t come of age until she acknowledges her debt to her mother. Hers had renounced a promising career, even her marriage. Felicity could never repay what she owed.

But she could try. Making a resolution to spend every holiday with her mother, the pain in her chest receded. Friends can never replace family, she reasoned. Duty and virtue bring their own rewards.

Back at university, she distanced herself from Patience and Charity, and avoided befriending anyone else. Yet she was insufficiently worldly to twig that her shyness and aloof demeanour could be a challenge to some. Most of the young men who approached Felicity between the library stacks terrified her. Joe was the first who did not.

He was an ungainly, diffident fellow. Although, with his jug ears and freckles, her mother would consider him substandard, Felicity liked him. She certainly liked the idea of having a boyfriend. Like Patience and Charity, he asked little of her beyond sharing a desk in the library and a coffee during the breaks.

As graduation approached, professors took her aside to advise her to apply for postgraduate studies. Felicity felt torn. In daily emails and texts her mother fizzed with plans for her return. When Eve’s name flashed on the screen of her mobile, Felicity felt a spasm in her chest.

Then there was Joe. He wanted to move on from holding hands and chaste kisses in the library café. The fluttering in her chest whenever she saw him told Felicity she wanted a more serious relationship too. But how could she please her mother, her boyfriend and her tutors when they wanted incompatible things?

When Joe presented Felicity with a tiny diamond, she doubled over in pain. Startled, Joe insisted on accompanying her to A&E.

As the ambulance cut through the traffic, the agony intensified. The siren scared her in a manner no words could describe. It seared through her body, kindling a patchy memory of a childhood nightmare of lying helpless while a vulture pecked out her heart. In the dream, no-one had been able to save her, just as no-one could save her now from a danger beyond any hospital’s capacity to fix.

A week earlier, the concern she read on Joe’s face would have been a comfort, but now she saw that he was as much in peril as she was. Lying on the couch, she removed her hand from his as if to adjust to a less awkward position. If she loved him, and she was sure she did, she had to protect him. The wider the distance between them, the safer he’d be. As the ambulance squealed through the streets, Felicity realised the palpitations she’d experienced over the years were neither a symptom of anxiety, nor the physical manifestation of love, but something altogether more hazardous and unnatural.

Springing from the ambulance the moment the paramedics opened the door, she thought that her actions could finally make her mother proud. She could save others, even if she couldn’t save herself.

How had she taken so long to apprehend the terrible truth? There was no other possible explanation: she was a girl with a bomb in lieu of a heart. Now it pounded in her chest, counting the seconds, as she raced across the car park. Her hitherto shameful shyness had been a lifesaver, splitting her off from others she might inadvertently harm. She wasn’t meant to have a normal life – friends, family, lovers – destined as she was to hurt those who took her hand in theirs. With a wrench, she thought of her mother. Would she have been so loving if she’d known of Felicity’s capacity to destroy them both?

Stumbling, her boyfriend’s arms broke her fall. “What’s got into you?” Joe couldn’t keep the panic from his voice.

“Get away from me! It’s not safe.”

“You’re delirious. Come back to the hospital with me.”

She spat in his face. “Let me go! I’ve got a bomb inside me.”

Did she convince him, or were her words so confusing that he momentarily relaxed his grip? Either way, it was enough for her to wriggle free from his embrace and dart into the road.

For the driver it was like a bomb going off, he was so shaken. But the other witnesses described only the squeal of brakes and, as if from far away, a baby’s cry.

 


ag-square

Anne Goodwin’s debut novel, Sugar and Snails was shortlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize. Her second novel, Underneath, appeared in 2017. Her short story anthology, Becoming Someone, is due in November 2018. Anne is also a book blogger focusing on fictional therapists. Website: annethology http://annegoodwin.weebly.com/ Twitter @Annecdotist.