If I had a previous life, it’s gone. All I know is, the baby won’t stop crying. His wails pierce through walls, as though they’re made of eggshell. His lungs squall for hours, leeching the oxygen, and leave nothing for me. Some days it’s hard to gather strength to get out of bed, climb downstairs, or even lift my arms to wash my hair.
Day and night, the baby feeds, sucking me dry. With each feed, my skin hangs off my bones; bags deepen under my eyes. There’s a vertical crease forming between my eyebrows, and a small blood vessel in the inner corner of each eye pollutes the whiteness. Some days I see the dark hollows of my eye sockets and wonder if Halloween is a daily event.
When the baby arrived, Jonah abandoned me for the spare room. The baby is always latched onto my breast; a breast which probably – in a previous life – filled Jonah’s mouth. A nipple which probably – in a previous life – was cupped by his tongue. The same breast which was probably once full and firm, now sags limply, onto the mattress. A mattress stained with sour milk and dried saliva. Not a lover’s bed. A mother’s bed. The baby’s hand holds possessively onto my skin, its head resting on the pillow beside mine. This was Jonah’s place. Slowly I realise, Jonah doesn’t have a place. In fact, he’s never home. Apparently, it’s the way it’s got to be, when one parent doesn’t work. I look at the baby, it’s mouth a toothless, gaping, fleshy hole, at the bottom of which possibilities once lay.
It’s an age since my agent contacted me. That’s another life – one in which I lost my finger-hold. But I know that somewhere it still exists. My mother mentions it when she visits, and I have shelves upon shelves of books containing my illustrations. I open them sometimes, scrutinise the sketches as if they were drawn by a stranger.
Sometimes I question our decision to move here. At the time it seemed like the perfect location for a gothic illustrator to live. The house’s quirks called to me; its creaks and groans fired my imagination: the crooked walls, squeaking floors, chestnut beams and rafters. I loved the mullioned windows, and stone flags; the scent of spruce burning in the open fireplace. I loved the trees that canopy the house, the swaying shadows they cast at night, the wall around the garden, the stone gateposts, and the tiny chapel and graveyard at the end of the lane. The lack of cars and shops and people create a world where real life doesn’t exist. My house. My world.
When the screaming gets too much, I put the baby in his pram and walk down the lane. He’s soothed by the whispering trees and the birds singing. I croon as we stroll as far as the graveyard and the chapel. As the covering of trees disperse, he starts to cry again, and I turn back.
Occasionally, the baby sleeps for hours. My mind in the silence becomes agitated, unfocused. Reading is impossible. Even television is too much, nothing more than a set of meaningless impressions and noise. Sometimes I laugh at what I’ve become. A navy coat hanging on the corner of a door becomes a shadow of an intruder; the stone gatepost at night, is a stalker ready to jump from the trees; and my own reflection in the mirror on the other side of the shower is a ghostly presence ready to steal my soul. The house’s own moans and lamentations, the shrill wind through the trees outside, take on a life of their own.
It’s then I realise, the baby’s cries are a relief.
My mother visits. For a change, the baby is asleep in another room. Mum washes a few dishes, and wipes round the kitchen while she waits for the kettle to boil. I keep a lot from her – I don’t want her to worry – but she knows.
‘You look tired, Theresa,’ she says, setting a cup of tea down in front of me. ‘And you’ve lost weight.’
‘Oh, I’m okay,’ I say, forcing out a tight smile.
‘You should get out more – you’re pale. How about I pick you up one day, and we go shopping?’
‘I do get out.’
‘More than just the end of the lane.’
‘I’m sorry, love.’ She sits opposite me at the table. ’Are things any easier?’
‘It’s…’ I struggle to find the right word, ‘… different.’
‘It’s tough. No one can deny that.’ She nods towards the bookshelves. ‘Have you managed any new illustrations? It might be time to focus on – ’
‘I try. It’s just… I’m so tired, I can’t seem to concentrate.’
‘Y’know – I saw Maggie in the City, and she was asking about you. She said whenever you’re ready, she’s happy to…’
I put my cup down. Tea splashes the table. ‘I told you, I’m not ready.’ My voice emerges louder than I intended.
‘Look love,’ she tries to take my hand in hers, but I move it away, ‘this isn’t healthy. You need to be around people, not shutting yourself away like this.’
‘I’m not shutting myself away. Jonah’s…’
Mum looks at me sharply. I catch her look.
‘I know. I know. You’re right,’ I say, ’he’s not around enough. But he will.’
‘Theresa, this can’t go on. Being on your own… You’re – ’
From upstairs, I hear whimpering. It’s Mum’s fault.
‘It’s the baby,’ I say.
Mum grabs me as I try to stand up, but I shrug her off and rush to the room at the top of the stairs. It’s meant to be a nursery, but mostly, it’s a storage area for my art supplies. The baby’s mewls escalate; soon the noise will be unbearable. A tightness develops in my chest.
I’m at the door, but Mum’s followed me up the stairs. She steps in front of me, grasps the handle. She tentatively tries to touch me with her other hand. A buzzing begins in my ears, gradually heightens.
‘Don’t,’ I say.
‘Theresa, I’m sorry, but there is no Jonah.’
‘What?’ I laugh, scornfully.
I laugh again, horrified. ‘You’re nuts.’
‘Theresa, you know. You know that he – ’
‘Don’t be daft – I saw him…’ I grapple for a memory. I can’t remember when I saw him. ‘He works away because I can’t… because of the baby…’
‘Theresa.’ She clings onto my arms. ‘Theresa, there is no baby.’
Again, I shake her away. She’s wrong. She’s wrong. I push open the door, turn on the light, and run into the room. Sometimes if I pick him up, cradle him in my arms before he realises I’m not there, I can stop the torrent, the endless torment. The baby. The baby.
I expect Mum to follow me in, but she stops in the doorway.
‘Oh my God, Theresa,’ she says.
I follow her gaze. My eyes widen, and my hand hovers in front of my mouth.
In the room, there is no way to see in or out. Every wall and window is painted black, streaked in angry white and red splodges and slashes, covering three of the walls and the ceiling. It’s a puzzle, an optical illusion. If you study it for long enough, eventually a shape will form. And a shape does form.
I am at the centre of a black, howling chasm emitting a never-ending scream.
She steps from the doorway, as a familiar wail journeys from deep inside me, and her arms draw me in.
7 comments on “THE BABY by Sally-Anne Wilkinson”
Reblogged this on Writing – Beginning and Beyond and commented:
Here’s my latest contribution to the Storgy short story magazine.
This really is a superb story and what a knockout/surprise ending, it gave me goose-bumps. Excellent writing and a riveting read.
Thank you Anne. I’m glad the ending surprised you. I don’t think I knew myself what was going to happen at the end until I wrote it!
Thank you so much Kate 🙂
WOW Sally. What a suprise ending to a truly realistic story. Brilliant.
Lyn, thank you for reading. You’re a darling 🙂 x